Monday, September 17, 2007

Manga - A New Genre for Me

Prior to my trip to Tokyo last April, I thought it might be educational to sample some Manga, which is a type of graphic novel, very popular in Japan. Ducking into Rocket!, one of the local comic/manga/graphic novel stores, I browsed the shelves for a while, and then asked the very helpful gal behind the counter for some recommendations. Telling her I wanted something on the "dark" side, she recommended Berserk by Kentaro Miura.

This series follows Guts, the protagonist, as he fights off demons and other evil. (And, yes, Guts is really the name of the character - when in Japan, I bought a Japanese version, and asked a Japanese friend of mine to translate his name. She said, "um...Guts" :) He's been cursed, so that he can't die, and so that evil is drawn to him, so he's always on the road, using his big (and I do mean BIG) sword to kill the bad guys.

It's an interesting story, and as I've read deeper in the series (I'm up to #4), the story is getting more complex. I'm definitely interested to see what develops. The artwork is imaginative and extremely detailed, though the writing is fairly amateurish - though that may be a result of the translation.

(It should be noted that Berserk contains graphic violence & explicit content, and has a 'Parental Advisory' sticker on it. Not a book for the kiddies, despite its juvenile story.)

Other manga I've since read:

Black Sun, Silver Moon by Tomo Maeda - The story of young Taki, forced to work for a priest to pay off his father's debt, and Shikimi the priest he works for. Turns out, Shikimi spends his nights killing the un-dead, and expects Taki to help. Drawn in very typical manga style (large eyes, pointed faces), the writing and story is fairly predictable. After reading the first one, I'm not sure I'll read more.

Star Trek: The Manga - Five stories by five authors and artists, done in manga style and set in the original Star Trek universe of the original TV series (with Kirk & Spock). Hey, it's Star Trek - I had to get it! :-) The stories were not bad - similar in tone to the Star Trek animated series. It was fun to see the different artists' approach to the artwork. A must for any Star Trek fan!

Lone Wolf and Cub - Vol. 1, The Assassin's Road - story by Kazuo Koike and artwork by Goseki Kojima - This is a "groundbreaking" series, set in the Edo period of Japan. It's groundbreaking both for its historical setting and its amazing, nearly cinematic artwork. The hero of the series is the Lone Wolf, an assassin for hire, who travels with his toddler son, the Cub. This first book in the series is a series of vignettes, as we follow the father and son through the countryside, as he is hired for various jobs. Of course, our hero has a conscience and a strict set of ethics, but most of the stories were pretty much the same. I may try another book in the series, if only for the draw of the period it's set in. However, I have to say that the smaller format, which results in teeny-tiny print, detracts from my enjoyment of the artwork.

Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo - A truly groundbreaking manga, first published in 1982. It is set in a futuristic Tokyo, and involves a teen gang of motorcycle riders which gets involved in a secret government weapons program, when one of their gang is taken in, and discovers he has immense mental powers. This story is as complex and well-developed as any textual science fiction novel. And the artwork is compelling. It helps that this series is published in over-size format, which helps in the enjoyment of the book. I will definitely read the entire series. (On a side note, I recently viewed the movie version of Akira, which was also compelling. Though, as is usual in the case of books being converted into movies, there is quite a loss in story depth. If you want to see a fine example of anime, I highly recommend this one.)

Ghost in the Shell by Shirow Masamune - Another of the 'greats' of manga, both for story and artwork. The story is set in the future, where humans are often computer-enhanced, and cyborgs are created for many uses. Again, this story holds up against any mainstream science fiction. Our heroine is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg, investigating a terrorist cybercriminal, who hacks people through their computer components and uses them for his purposes (the people are the 'shell' and he is the 'ghost' of the title).

Nice artwork, and the edition I have (Dark Horse Manga) has several pages in full color, which adds to the enjoyments. My only complaint is the way the hero is drawn - as is typical, she is, shall we say, well-endowed. (I also thought the female-only sex scene was totally unnecessary). I guess this is to be expected, coming from male authors. (Hmm, are there any female manga authors? I'll have to find out!) This series was also made into a movie, which I saw before reading the book. I really enjoyed the movie, and will have to see the rest of the film series, and read the rest of the book series. (This book also has a parental advisory, which is well-deserved.)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Graphic Novels

This is another genre that I've recently become interested in (though I did buy and read a hardcover compilation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller back in the late 80's or early 90's, and I read 3 of the Sin City series, also by Frank Miller, a couple of years ago). Graphic novels are often thought of as just collections of comic books, filled with superheroes, which they can be, but they can also be books in their own right, books which use art to aid in telling the story.

A brief review of the graphic novels I've recently read:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (volumes I and II) - A fun series, which brings together several 'fictional' characters as a sort of 'A-Team' - set during the end of the 19th century. We have Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Jekyll/Hyde and others. These are full-color, glossy productions, which really show off the artwork. The scenery is almost steam-punk in style. I definitely enjoy books that treat fictional characters as real (see my earlier post on Jasper Fforde and the Tuesday Next series), and this one is definitely fun. It may not be as erudite as Fforde's work, it is still an interesting premise, and the artwork makes it quite fun to read.

Fables by Bill Willingham, et al - Similar to Extraordinary Gentlemen, this series creates a world where storybook characters (Red Ridinghood, The Big Bad Wolf) etc., find themselves exiled from their world, and finding refuge in modern-day New York City. A fun premise and a fun read (I'm up to volume 5), and a bit more light-hearted than EG (though some bad things definitely do happen). These are full-color spreads, but not glossy - they definitely have that "comic book" look - though this is not necessarily bad. I have enjoyed this series - fun, light reading.

Violent Messiahs: Book of Job by Joshua Dysart, et al - A dark, nihilistic, sci-fi/horror story that bills itself as a "story about criminal politics, the nature of violence and man's search for individuality." I have to say that this was probably a bit too dark & violent for my liking. I wasn't surprised by this, after all, the title pretty much gives it away, but it was just too much for me. This volume is printed in full-color, glossy format, which is a plus, and enhances some of the really creative graphics. Not sure this is a series I'll continue, however.

Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, et al - What most people think of when they think of graphic novels: it's main characters are the DC superheroes (Superman, Batman, etc). However, the story is not your 'typical' comic book plot, with some bizarre bad guy or mad scientist threatening to blow up the world. This novel deals with the issues faced by the families of these superheroes: parents, wives, husbands. We see the superheroes interacting with their families, and trying to reassure them. This becomes more difficult when the wife of The Elongated Man is killed. Someone is targeting the families of these superheroes, in order to get at them. It's an interesting premise, and the story is definitely more mature than the usual comic book fodder. Full-color, glossy format - and a good story: a good read, despite men in tights. :-)

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman - This is a beautiful book (hardcover, glossy, full color), and an intriguing premise: what if the X-Men were "born" in 1602, in Europe. There is the expected opposition to the "mutants", but combine that with the Spanish Inquisition, and fear of witchcraft/sorcery. The mutants are labeled "witchbreed" and hunted as spawn of the devil. The artwork is spectacular, and definitely cinematic. Really, really sophisticated. It was fun to see a new take on an old story - and I'm not surprised that Neil Gaiman is behind it. I've discovered that his books/movies are VERY original and creative. This book is a fine example of the best of the genre.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd - A 'groundbreaking' book. Originally published as a series of comic books in England in the 80's, they are collected here in one book. It is considered groundbreaking, because it was one of the first comic series to step outside of the superhero world, instead, bringing a story quite relevant for the current age. It has a bit of 1984, dealing with a controlling big brother-like government, and one man's attempt to wake up the populace. "People should not be afraid of the government; the government should be afraid of the people." This is a very intelligent, thought-provoking story, that just happens to be told with the help of graphics. A very good movie was made of the story, that came out a few years ago. I highly recommend the movie as well as the book!

300 by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley - Another 'grown-up" graphic novel - not based on comic book characters, but a real-life incident in ancient Greece: the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held off the army of Persia. Another beautiful hardcover, with lush, painterly graphics. If you've seen the movie (which I actually liked, and which prompted me to get the book), you've seen the book. Many frames of the book are reproduced exactly in the movie. The movie fleshes out some of the characters, that the book does not. But the book is another "must have" for anyone's graphic novel collection, and a "must read" for anyone interested in the genre (and not interested in superheroes)

The Dark River - John Twelve Hawks

This sequel to The Traveller (2005), picks up right where the first book left off. Travelers are people who can leave this universe (though their bodies stay here), and tend to be spiritual and cultural leaders and revolutionaries. Throughout history, the Harlequins have been tasked with protecting Travelers, by whatever means necessary - though swords are the preferred weapon. And the Travelers have many enemies, mostly the established governments and organizations, led in secret by the Tabula (think Illuminati).

Set in today's world, these books follow Maya, a young, and reluctant, Harlequin, (yet another 'tough' heroine - are you seeing a pattern in my reading?) who is trying to protect the last two (known) Travelers. The Tablua rely on the current computer networks to track people, so Harlequins "live off the grid" to avoid detection, and rely on the anti-establishment subculture to aid them. Both books are fast-moving and suspenseful, but I thought The Dark River wasn't quite as "tight". Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about Maya's struggles with her destiny and her struggles against the Tabula. Definitely fun, fast-paced reading, overall.

These books are pretty much a crusade against Big Brother tracking us through our everyday lives, and thereby controlling us. (The author, who is using a pseudonym, is said to "live off the grid" himself.) They don't really break new ground in the "secret conspiracy" genre, but the idea of the Harlequins & Travelers is somewhat unique.

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

OK, so this is a little late - in fact, a lot late. What can I say - I've been busy reading!

So, my summer vacation (in cabin with no electricity) reading list:
1. Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters - the nth in the Amelia Peabody mystery series. Amelia is an Egyptologist from England, and these books cover her escapades (and her family's) in Egypt in the early part of the 20th century. I enjoy them for her wry humor, and watching Amelia, a liberated woman, struggle to be treated as an equal. As an added bonus, I pick up a smattering of history and archeology while I read. These books are just plain fun, and great to take on a vacation.
2. Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich - Another mystery series with a female protagonist. These, however, are not exactly educational - unless you want to learn about the culture in New Jersey. Stephanie Plum is the (rather inept) bounty hunter in this series, which is chock full of very memorable characters. This series is definitely "junk food" reading, and just like food, it's fun to let go and indulge every now and then!
3. The Bug by Ellen Ullman - This is sort of a mystery, and also an exploration of life in the software industry and an interesting character study. The titular 'bug' is randomly popping up in a soon-to-be-released software application. It is set in the 80's, at the beginning of the PC revolution and the birth of Windows. This book does a wonderful job of showing what life is like for a programmer, without succumbing to intimidating jargon or code. I thought the en was a little thin, but otherwise I enjoyed it.
4. A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge -These two books are just about the best treatment of alien cultures that I've encountered, in a lifetime of reading science fiction. Absolutely believable and definitely alien. Vinge's imagination of alien life and societies is absolutely brilliant. The human characters are not the only focus - the alien characters are fully developed, and I found myself relating to them, despite their incredible alienness. Absolutely BRILLIANT. (Thanks, Dave R. for the recommendation!)
5. Apropos of Nothing by Peter David - A satirical fantasy (though light on the "fantasy", which is good for me, not being much of a fantasy fan) that was impossible for me to put down. Very, very funny! I am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Woad to Ruin.

I think I read one other book during vacation, but since that was in July, I don't remember! :-)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Something Rotten - Jasper Fforde

This is the 4th volume in the "Tuesday Next" series. (The first 3 are The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, and The Well of Lost Plots.)These books are all set in an alternate world to ours, where literature is taken VERY seriously, genetic recombination is commonplace (dodo birds are a favorite pet) and people can go in and out of books, often wreaking havoc. Tuesday Next is the intrepid detective who has marvelous adventures, meeting Jane Eyre (and saving the original ending!), Miss Haversham and other famous literary folks. Meanwhile folks are trying to kill her, her husband has been eradicated via time-travel (oh- and her dad is popping in and out of the time stream, trying to keep history straight), and she has to deal with the usual work hassles.

As you may assume from the title, this 4th book is very Hamlet-related. In fact, the Danish Prince has accompanied Tuesday back to "real life", where he is trying to convince everyone that he doesn't have a fatal flaw of indecision! He CAN make decisions! Er, well, sort of...

There are just too many funny bits - for instance, another detective branch in the police department is tasked with taking care of things like vampires, werewolves and zombies. And then there are the William Shakespeare clones...

This is not a "science-fiction" book, depite the familiar SciFi themes. It's really more of a mystery series, that just happens to take place in a rather odd world. Anyone who loves literature will appreciate these books. I think this 4th one is the best yet!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Out by Natsuro Kirino

I saw this book on the bookshelf at the store, and being a bit attuned to things Japanese of late (because of my recent trip there), it just jumped out at me. The cover proclaims it to be the "winner of Japan's grand prix for crime fiction" and an "Edgar Award finalist". The fact that it was written by a woman sealed the deal for me - I bought it.

Once again, I found myself immersed in the dark side of Japanese culture. The book follows the lives of several women who work the night-shift packaging box lunches. All of the women, though working, are struggling to get by. When one of them kills her abusive husband in a fight, they rally around her, and decide they must dispose of the body to keep anyone from knowing about the crime. How they go about doing this, and the consquences that this leads to is much like the old cliche of watching a train crash - you want to look away, but you just have to keep looking.

The characters in the book were fairly interesting, with a few stereotypical ones found any any crime drama, such as the young 'mafia-type' punk who wants to make a name for himself. I can't say that I could identify with any of them - nor could I really feel the desperation that their situation supposedly put them in. I don't know if this is due to the translation, the nature of Japanese novels, or the nature of this author's writing. So I never really "connected" with the book. While the depiction of the dark side of Japanese life was intriguing, it didn't really reach out and grab me. (And I still don't know what the "out" of the title refers to - getting "out" of the situation? Being "out" of normal society?) So, not sure I'll read another of her books.

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima.

Having recently travelled to Japan, I wanted to understand their history and culture a bit more. Before coming back to the US, I picked up an English translation of this book. Mishima is one of Japan's most famous authors, though he died (by his own hand) in 1970, at the age of 45. (He led a most interesting life, and the circumstances of his death are also intriguing - you may want to read more about it here:

If I had to give a one-sentence summary of the book, I'd call it the Japanese Lord of the Flies. Like that book, it deals with the cruel and animalistic nature of adolescent boys. If anything, Mishima's book is even more disturbing. (I do wonder if the reason I think this is the very different ages at which I read these - LOTF I read in high school, or even junior high. TSWFFGWTS I read at the ripe old age of 50. I should probably re-read LOTF to see if my impression still holds.)

At any rate, the book is hauntingly written, and tells a very bleak and often disturbing story. The protagonist of the story is 13 year old Noboru, who lives with his widowed mother. They meet a sailor, who had alwasy dreamed he would do something grand and heroic in his life. He falls in love with Noboru's mother, which is the turning point of the story. Noboru is in a 'gang' of other boys - all brilliant, but all completely disgusted by "normal" society, and through a philosophy called "objectivity" they feel destined to rule the world. They see the sailor's "abandonment" of the sea and his dream as betraying mankind, and another example of a "typical" no-good father. (I will have to read more about Mishima's relationship with his father - and his mother!)

I was riveted by the story, yet at the same time I was repulsed by what was happening. I will probably read another of Mishima's books, because this one was so well written and the theme, while disturbing, it seemed to me that it revealed some truths about human nature.

Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories - 1939

1939 is seen as the beginning of the golden age of science fiction. Asimov, Heinlein, Del Ray, and Sturgeon are just a few of the 'big' SF authors who got their start at this time. I was curious to see how dated these stories might be, nearly 70 years later, and overall, I'd have to say they held up pretty well.

I was expecting a lot more "Buck Rogers" type action with all the melodrama of a space opera, but that was not what I found. Instead, I found a wide variety of pretty darn good stories. Several of them, such as The Cloak of Aesir by Don Stuart, The Black Destroyerby A.E. Van Vogt, and Heavy Planet by Milton Rothman, were very interesting stories of alien cultures, and other than some antiquated language, could have been written today.

There were several 'fantasy' type stories - not in the Tolkien vein, but definitely not very science-based. These seemed a little naive and simple, but I must say I did enjoy Jack Williamson's Star Bright.

The most obvious clue to the age of the stories was the antiquated writing. Without fail, a full-grown woman was always referred to as a girl. Men were definitely the "leading man" type - taking the lead (when there were women in the story at all!). There were also a couple of slightly racist references, such as describing the character of an Asian man as having the "ancient politeness of his race".

I am glad I got to read these stories, even though they weren't all great, because they were all significant. Personally, I am very grateful at the progress seen in modern writing, but it was most educational to read stories from the very birth of science fiction as a legitimate genre. (Thanks, Robin, for sending it to me!)

Interview with the Vampire - Ann Rice

I had avoided reading any of Rice's vampire books, as I was afraid they would be too dark and satanic. Finding a copy of Interview with the Vampire at a yard sale for 10 cents, I figured I could take a chance - if I didn't like it, I was only out a dime! As for my fears, I was partially right - it was dark. But not inherently satanic. Yes, there are vampires. Yes, they kill people to survive. But it was not a "scary" book, nor was it particularly gory. It was more like a tragic Gothic romance - emphasis on tragic.

This is not a book full of sunshine and flowers. It is most definitely dark, but the story is quite well-written and I was engaged after the first few pages. But far from being something from a Bela Lugosi movie, and far from being a Stephen King horror novel, it was really just a very sad tale of a very sad (albeit artifically long) life.

The vampire being interviewed is Louis, and the time of the interview is modern-day. Louis' story begins in the 1700's in Louisiana, and we follow him through his life: becoming a vampire, being mentored by the vampire Lestat, falling in love, finding other vampires and all the strange life he led. He is loath to kill humans, though doing so brings him great ecstasy. He is constantly warring against his nature, and pondering if he is truly evil and damned. He is a tragic character in the full, literary sense of the word. (Did I mention that this wasn't a "happy" book?)

The vampire culture created by Rice is very interesting, and is well thought-out. She breaks somewhat with 'traditional' vampire lore, in that garlic & crucifixes are not vampire deterrents. But, they still sleep in coffins (though I really don't know why - why not any large container that could be sealed?), sunlight is fatal to them, and they have to drink blood to live.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, mostly for the good writing and interesting culture and characters. It's not a book that upon putting it down I say "Wow! I have to read that one again!", but I certainly didn't dislike it. However, having read this one and satisfied my curiosity, I'm not sure I'll read any more in the series. I just don't care to be that depressed all the time! ;-)

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Latest Read: Cryptonomicon

I am a member of a book club ("Read it and Eat!"), and our most recent book was Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I was one of those who recommended it, as I had read it before (at least twice) and enjoyed it so much it has made my list of "favorites" (see left-hand column). I must say I enjoyed it just as much this time!

The book is part thriller and part historical novel. The narrative switches each chapter between current time (circa 1995) and WWII. There are 2 main families we follow, the Shaftoes and the Waterhouses, and their lives are interwoven, both in the past and in the modern-day sections. Stephenson does a great job of switching back and forth between the families, and between times, and we see how the modern generation of each family is a product of their ancestors. Some may find the transition between stories a bit jarring or hard to follow at first, but once the characters become more fleshed out, it's really quite fun to see how Stephenson ties it all together.

But, the book is really about codes and code-breaking, with a little bit of computer hacking. It's an exciting story incorporating Nazis, geeks (both modern day and historical), gold and high-finance in a fast-paced (for the most part) book. Even the "dry" historical sections where we see the birth of computing are told through the eyes of those involved, so one can feel the excitement of discovery.

While the book is long (~900 pages) it is very readable and the characters are all quite interesting. If there is a nit to pick, it's the propensity of Stepehnson to ramble on (in some detail) about minor incidents and characters. Most of these sections do nothing to move the plot forward, but, in their defense, they do add color and ambience to the story. However, I think the book would be just as enjoyable (and not turn away so many readers) if the editor had been a bit more ruthless with the scissors.

The characters are for the most part fairly well-developed, especially as related to the story. We are privy to their thoughts and attitudes, all of which are unique and interesting - for example, Bobby Shaftoe, the Haiku-composing, heroin-addicted Marine.

One of the things I enjoy most about the book (besides the cool code-breaking/computer stuff!) is Stephenson's wry sense of humor that he injects in many characters/scenes. The reaction of one character during the raid on Pearl Harbor is a great example of this, as is a section where this same character meets the woman who will become his wife. These sections are found throughout the book, and help to make the story lines even more enjoyable.

The biggest disappointment was the ending - first, because I didn't want the story to end, and secondly because it all ends rather abruptly. It seems as if the author realized he had to end the book, and so wrapped things up as quickly as possible. I was left feeling a little cheated. But, not enough to make me dislike the book! The rest of the book is as good a read as I've had in years, and its inventiveness and characters make up for any shortcomings.

Monday, May 21, 2007

BiblioFile - A Book Lover's Blog

Having been a book reader since I was 4 (and I even remember the exact moment I realized I could read), and a lover of books ever since, I decided I wanted to have a place to write down my musings about books - because the next best thing to reading a book is talking about it!

Stay tuned for occasional postings about books I'm reading and books I've read. If the postings are not regular, it's because I'm too busy reading! :-)